Vocabulary Skills

No matter how old you are or how much education you have, at one time or another you will encounter a word which you’ve never seen before. How do you handle it? How are you going to figure out what it means?

The skills that we use to discover the meanings and pronunciations of unknown words are called "word attack" skills. Word attack skills are the ways we use to reveal a word's meaning and pronunciation. What are these skills and how can you use them to improve your reading? Follow these steps:

1. Try to sound-out the word using phonics

Phonics is the study of the ways that spellings represent the sounds of words. In most languages the sounds of the letters closely represent the sounds of a word, but in the case of English there are many exceptions. Some people say it's not useful to know phonics because the English language seems so mixed up and inconsistent. There are hardly any phonics rules which you can apply to every word. True, many English words do not follow the rules, because of the massive borrowing that has taken place over the years from other languages, but most syllables of most words do follow the rules. Trying to "sound-out" a word is often a good first step, because, like most adults, you probably have a large vocabulary of words that you’ve heard in conversation or on television, but couldn’t spell or perhaps recognize in print. Phonics helps bridge the gap between a person’s "hearing vocabulary" and his "reading vocabulary". Phonics also helps a person spell words better.

2. Try to Guess the Word Meaning from its Context

Words really only have meaning when they are used in sentences. Often you can guess a word’s meaning by how it is used in the sentence. This is the way that most of us figure out unknown words in ordinary conversation. You can ask yourself: What part of speech is the unknown word? Are there other clues in the sentence which point to the unknown word? Is the unknown word part of a list? Things that are part of a list often share the same characteristics. Is the unknown word compared to some other known word in the passage? Authors often define difficult words right in the passage. It’s often right there in the next sentence.

3. Look for the Greek, Latin, or old English Roots in a Word

Most English words came from some other language. Most of English’s scientific, cultural, religious and medical terms came from Greek and Latin. Also, many borrowed words from other European languages evolved from Greek and Latin. If you have a basic understanding of some Greek and Latin roots, it is like having a shortcut to pronouncing and understanding many college-level words.

Take for example, the root aud which means "to hear". It is in the word audiometer. It is also in the words auditorium, audiovisual, and audition. The meter part of the word means "measure"- and is the same root in thermometer, seismometer, and the metric system. It is easy to see that audiometer has something to do with the measurement of hearing.

There are books that have lists of common roots, prefixes and suffixes which some student find helpful. Be aware of Greek and Latin root words as you read.

4. Look it up in the Dictionary

When all else fails, look it up in the dictionary,- but don't just leave it at that. Make a note about the word. Try to vocalize the word to help you remember it. Online dictionaries or encyclopedias may be more up-to-date than published books, but be aware that online materials should be read with a critical eye. An example of a good reference is Wikipedia at http://wikipedia.org.